Ivan Medenica, BITEF’s creative director, wants to fight the rise in right-wing populism’ by taking avant-garde theatre to wider audiences.
Ivan Medenica wants to use contemporary theatre to incite wider social debate. Photo: Jelena Jankovic
Ivan Medenica is one of the most accomplished and visible people on the arts scene in Serbia, and, of course, a busy man. The creative director of the Belgrade International Theatre Festival, BITEF, and professor at Belgrade’s Faculty of Dramatic Arts, FDU, is also a noted theatre critic and member of the committee of the International Association of Theatre Critics.
He is also one of the rare figures in Serbian art circles whose professional rather than political or personal pursuits stir up lively debates that reach outside Serbia’s art bubble.
In 2016, when he failed to win a permanent post at the FDU after running and creating one of the most critically acclaimed editions of BITEF in 2015, the media was aflame with debates about the workings of Serbian academia and its frequent displays of professional pettiness and jealousy.
Medenica stirred passions last year as well, when BITEF staged and Serbia’s state television, RTS, broadcast a 24-hour performance of “Mount Olympus”, a celebrated, but avant-garde take on Greek mythology by Jan Fabre, an acclaimed Belgian theatre director.
While part of the Serbian public applauded the idea of staging such an ambitious project in Belgrade, the tabloids were shocked by the nudity and transgressive sexuality displayed in parts of the performance, which one critic from the UK Guardian described as “a theatrical orgy that outdoes Dionysus”.
Rather than shrink from the conservative outcry, Medenica saw it as a way to engage the public beyond BITEF’s traditional intellectual, upper-middle class audience.
“Everybody spoke about the performance. Suddenly, a topic from the arts became a key political and social issue, and that is very important for the arts,” he says.
“Maybe I would have preferred the focus to be on other issues [raised in the performance], not just nudity… I was honestly surprised by how much our society has gone backwards in terms of values and liberties,” he adds.